Bad Design

This morning at Staples, I pushed the “Done” button on the credit card machine before I even signed my name. I think the reason was that the “Done” button was at the top of the screen, above the signature box. We’re used to working from top to bottom on forms, so I naturally started at the top. A better design would place the “Done” button below the signature, so the sequence is more natural.

I’m something of an aficionado of bad design. I don’t mean “bad” in aesthetic terms. What intrigues me is how inattention to the way humans actually operate results in designs that make tasks more difficult, even if only mildly so, than they need to be.

For example, I once encountered a transit ticket machine (in the D.C. Metro, iirc) that required several steps in order to get a ticket, and those steps involved directions and buttons that began on the right side of the machine and worked their way left. That would be good design for an Arabic language ticket machine, but for an English language one it causes us to work against our ingrained tendency to work left to right.

One that’s long bugged me is the layout of the buttons on my clock radio. Look at the two buttons on the left, for setting the time. When we read time, the hour is on the left, the minutes on the right. But the buttons for setting the time are reversed, with minutes first and hours second. When I have to change the time, usually for re-setting the alarm, I frequently hit the wrong button first because I’m mentally envisioning an “hours-minutes” sequence. It doesn’t bother me enough to spend 15 bucks on a different alarm clock, but you can be sure that next time I buy one I’ll take a close look at the button layout.

How about you? What bad designs have caught your eye?

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About James Hanley

James Hanley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of either organization.
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20 Responses to Bad Design

  1. James K says:

    Wait a minute, why are you signing your name with a credit card machine?

  2. James Hanley says:

    The question makes me wonder if something that is now a common part of U.S. life, but only in the past decade or even less, is not yet common in New Zealand. But here when we make purchases at stores, there is a device on which you can swipe your debit or credit card. If you use a credit card, you sign electronically on a little screen, using a stylus (that always produces a bad parody of my signature (which itself is a bad parody of a signature)). Is that not yet common in New Zealand, or did I just write in a confusing way?

  3. Matty says:

    I suspect they may skip that stage and go directly to using Personal Identification Numbers (PIN) to validate the card. Also for reasons I don’t understand the US seems to be opting out of the international standard for credit cards http://www.emvco.com/about_emvco.aspx?id=202
    I remember the days before credit card terminals could validate the customer at all, it used to be that you had to sign a bit of paper and the cashier would compare that to your signature on the back of the card, or more usually drop it straight in the till and process payment without checking.

  4. James Hanley says:

    Ah, yes. We have PINs for debit card use, but not usually for credit card use. Shifting to PINs for credit cards would probably be logical.

  5. Dr X says:

    Zip codes also for credit card verification at some gas stations, but some use nothing to verify. Just swipe it.

  6. Dr X says:

    Postal codes, petrol stations.

  7. James K says:

    New Zealand has had EFTPOS for more than 20 years. You swipe an ATM card, debit card or credit card and enter your PIN. Basically, it lets us use our cheque accounts like they were debit cards. Also it apparently lets us avoid using signatures for our credit cards. The only time I’ve ever signed for my card was once in a store that had a power failure, and they had to bring out one of those old-timey manual machines with the carbon paper.

  8. James Hanley says:

    OK, we have that, too, for debit/ATM cards. But normally we still use signatures instead of PINs for credit cards. Except that by law amounts under, I think, $20 don’t require a signature, which makes going through the drive-through at the fast food joints faster (although most other places still require a signature, except, as Dr. X notes, gas stations, where I can spend a lot more than $20 on a fill-up without signing for anything).

  9. Matty says:

    I can kind of see why signing for credit cards was used in the first place as people would have been familiar with it from cheques and the like and the technology may not have been up to using PINs but why bring in a different technology to automate the signing when the use of PINs was already an established standard? Sounds a bit like re-inventing the wheel, is this bad design?

  10. lancifer666 says:

    One pet peeve of mine are electronic check out screens that make you select between “debit” and “credit” and then refer you to a second screen on the smaller “swiper”. Then that screen makes you choose between “credit” and “debit” again. Seriously, didn’t I just give the damn system that information?

    Much like the computerized customer service phone systems that ask you for your account or phone number and then when a human comes on the line they ask you again. Why the f%^k did the system ask me for that information if I have to give it again to a human?

  11. pierrecorneille says:

    “Except that by law amounts under, I think, $20 don’t require a signature,”

    I could be wrong, but I thought it wasn’t a law so much as that the business in question–usually fast food–was willing to take and absorb the risk that a few dishonest people would dispute the charges in exchange for the benefit of more satisfied customers.

  12. Matty says:

    Much like the computerized customer service phone systems that ask you for your account or phone number and then when a human comes on the line they ask you again.

    I hate those, on a related note a lot of companies I call have taken to using menu trees with multiple layers to ‘get your call to the right place’ and still when I get through to a human it will be a general customer services bod who has to forward my call to the department I was actually trying to contact. The only thing I can think of is they’re getting a cut from phone bill.

  13. Dr X says:

    @ Lancifer
    “Much like the computerized customer service phone systems that ask you for your account or phone number and then when a human comes on the line they ask you again. Why the f%^k did the system ask me for that information if I have to give it again to a human?”

    That’s to confirm that someone didn’t shoot you right after putting a gun to your head to make you punch in the information. Seriously, though, it is obnoxious.

  14. pierrecorneille says:

    Thanks, James. I suppose that it’s a risk being taken by Visa, then, and not by the merchant (despite Visa’s claim that fraud claims will not increase materially).

  15. James Hanley says:

    Pierre,
    I think that’s right. From what I read, it sounds like Visa’s doing it to help their merchants move people along faster. But surely they don’t anticipate large losses from the policy, because they surely aren’t going to be too purely altruistic. I suppose most people who are going to commit credit card fraud aren’t going to run from store to store buying inexpensive items before the card gets shut down, but will try to get some real value out of it with big purchases.

  16. I’ve noticed at many chain convenience stores, they’ve built these elaborate soda / slurpee / cappucino / coffee stations but then have neglected to make any trash receptacles in the elaborate construct. Off to the side, you’ll find a cheap 13 gallon garbage can stuck in an inconspicuous spot for your straw wrappers / sugar packets / stir sticks. Hard to believe with all the brilliance involved in designing these, they never thought about the trash.

  17. James Hanley says:

    Good example, Mark. I’ve noticed that, too. Some places have the trash receptacles built right in, but others seem to have neglected that feature. The mind boggles.

  18. Yeah, some do have them built in. But few enough of them that I actually notice when they’re there.

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